Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Is There a Civil War in Education

I've been following tweets from the big Third Way confabulation in Massachusetts today, and apparently one of the recurring themes is a certain amount pearl clutching over the Civil War between charter and public school advocates. And I had some thoughts...

First, kudos to whatever PR flack came up with that rhetoric, because it's kind of genius. 

Once upon a time, charter operators portrayed themselves as scrappy trendsetters, rebels who were going to Fight The Power and disrupt the hell out of that stodgy old education sector. They were going to fight the status quo.

Well, there comes a time in the life of every rugged scrappy entrepreneur when you put on a suit and instead of settling for scraps, grab yourself a seat at the gown-up table and start enjoying the perks of being rather status quo-y yourself. (This is also a handy perch from which to keep your eye on any other scrappy trendsetters who show up to queer your pitch, because once you are the status quo, protecting the status quo starts to make so much more sense.)

The "Civil War" construct is elegant because it assumes all sorts of things that charter folks would like to assume without actually having to discuss. A Civil War occurs between equals, brothers who have been torn apart by a foolish disagreement and who should really be learning to live in harmony, as equals, with equal claim to all the bounty the status quo provides.

If you can't quite see what I'm getting at, imagine how it would change the conversation is, say, we characterized public education as a beautiful home that had become infested with charter termites. Or public education as a big expansive oak tree, with some branches withering from charter school blight. Or public education a robust, vigorous group of athletic young men and women, some of whom had to be benched because they were combating a charter school tapeworm. Or public education was a great construction company, building a wonderful new skyscraper and charter school operators were a bunch of five-year-olds who wandered onto the construction site and kept stealing tools and getting in the way.

But no-- our charter operators would like to declare themselves peers of the trained, experienced professionals of the public education system, based on the fact that charter schools exist, and have acquired political clout, and a few sort of know what they're doing. The Civil War construct is a glorious false equivalency, the charter insistence that they are just as legitimate as public education-- and we get to just skip right over the discussion of whether or not that's even true. It let's us skip some of the central question of charters like 1) is there a good reason for them to exist and 2) if so, is there a good reason they should be owned and operated by hedge fund managers and other folks with no actual educational training or background. The Civil War construct lets us skip the fact that the modern charter debate is just the Teach for America debate writ large-- why should we create an entire parallel education system operated by untrained amateurs?

The one big rhetorical flaw in the Civil War rhetoric

Watch charteristas be very careful in talking about a civil war, because THE civil war was not a battle between equivalent sides. In THE civil war, one side was fighting to preserve to own other human beings. One side was fighting to preserve and maintain one of the most odious practices in human history. It is absolutely true that the North was not without sin, that the Union was not standing up clearly for the side of virtue. But if you look at the American Civil War and say, "Well, you know, both sides really had a point," you need to go back to history class, because they did not. One side was dead wrong. Period. Full stop.

They had resources and political clout and access to money that meant they couldn't be ignored, that they had to be dealt with-- but the Confederacy was wrong, and what they were fighting for was wrong. Do any of the people shaking their heads and clucking over the public school vs. charters civil war want to talk about which side would be the Confederacy in this scenario? I didn't think so.

Suing for what sort of piece peace, exactly?

I've always maintained that despite the occasional (not very successful) attempts, charter operators don't really want to take over entire districts (I have a blog about this somewhere, but damned if I can find it- I have got to get me an administrative assistant just as soon as that next giant grant comes in). Running an entire district would be cumbersome and potentially could leave the charter operator trapped. Most importantly, the most popular modern charter business model has a critical dependency on having a place to dump problem/costly students, and that dumping ground of choice remains the public school system.

So no, by and large I don't think charters ever wanted to wipe out public school systems.

So what do they want? Well, I think the months ahead will continue to give us a clearer picture, and perhaps the reportage from today's confab will shed some light as well. But there are a few things we can reasonably guess.

We've seen similar initiatives, back when we had a call for new, more reasonable conversations. That sort of tone policing generally boiled down to, "Damn, I thought we were just going to walk in and y'all would roll over without a fight, but you just keep talking and hammering at us and sometimes just make it impossible to follow our action plan. What can we do to get you to shut up long enough for us to just think for five minutes?"

This is more of the same. Remember, Empower Schools, the Third Way people, are trying to spread their brand through Massachusetts, a state where reformsters have captured most of the educations leadership roles in the state, and yet the teachers and the students and the parents just won't shut up and let them be. They are trying to make a business plan work, and they would prefer not to have to deal with teachers and the public and the need to sink more money in PR and advertising.

In short, "Can't we just work this out reasonably?" often boils down to "Will you stop getting in my way? Will you stop trying to gab my arm when I go for your wallet? When I punch you in the face, would you please have the decency not to punch me in my face?"

Are some of these people sincere?

The answer is, "Probably." Though whether that sincerity has to do with a sincere desire to make peace or a sincere desire to make money is another question.

However, basic sincerity is easy to gauge when talking to reformsters. All you have to ask is, how much responsibility do they take for the tenor of the conversation. Here's the basic scale:

Puzzled sadness. If their position is, "Gee, I don't understand how all this conflict started. just a mystery, you know, how things got all cantankerous," this is not a serious person, and certainly not a sincere one.

False equivalency. If their position is, "Well, yeah, first I punched you in the face, and then you punched me, so I guess we're both to blame, huh?" this is also someone who is neither serious nor sincere. There is no equivalency in the charter-public school debate. You can tell, because classic traditional charters did not, and do not, stir up any such conflict. But the modern charter movement moved in, led by amateurs who questioned our motives, called us names, denigrated our profession, attacked our livelihoods and tried to savage the health of the schools to which we had devoted our professional lives. Public school advocates did not suddenly become cranky about charter schools for no good reason. We were attacked. We fought back.

Deflection. "Well, maybe we were a bit out of line, and we're really sorry that you are such thin-skinned jerks that you had to react so badly to it." Pass. Next.

Honesty. If they can admit their role in the "civil war," then we have a basis to move forward. It's a possible thing. That doesn't mean they need to display abject sorrow. But prominent reformsters like Rick Hess have managed to say some version of, "If we call people names and accuse them of being stupid and evil, we deserve the opposition we get, because we are wrong." Likewise, if they can actually hear what we're saying and not try to twist it into the straw homme du jour, that's a good thing. I can talk to anybody who will actually read, listen, think and talk honestly. I might not agree with them, but I can talk to them, and we'll probably both be better for it.

So, hey-- there was a question back at the top...?

Is charter vs. public school some sort of civil war? And can it be solved? I'm not so sure about the first. The second is actually easy-- we could stop half of our charter troubles by simply creating an honest funding system. If the politicians of North New Frampsylvania (or whatever state you live in) want to have multiple school systems, be honest and fully fund them all. Don't, as some states do, take the current funding which is already not enough to fund the public system you already have, and try to use that inadequate funding to fund multiple school systems.

The Great Lie of the charter movement is that you can run multiple school systems for the cost of a single system. You can't. And so charters and public schools are left to fight over a pie that is already too small for one diner, let alone a dozen. Of course the result will be conflict, and lots of it. Though somehow I doubt that it would be peaches, cream, and fluffy bunnies if politicians went to the public and said, "In order to have more charter schools, we are raising your taxes."

But a Civil War? Not so much. In much (but not all) of the modern (but not traditional classic) charter movement, we have rich, powerful men using political clout to barge in and privatize pieces of the education system so that rich, powerful folks can get more rich. In the process they may rescue ten out of every hundred children of poverty, which is a noble and worthy goal, but in the process, they abandon the other ninety to a struggling less-than-awesome public school that now has even fewer resources to help. And all of this is done by education amateurs who believe that they have the authority to mess with the education system because, well, they just do, and yet, even after this many years, have few real successes to point to.

What we call it doesn't really matter. I agree that it would help everyone to help it settle a bit, and I actually can envision what okay-with-me charters would look like. But public school voices have been largely shut out of the conversation for at least a decade now, and there are no signs that's going to change. Unilaterally "negotiated" peaces rarely last.

I know what I'd like to see. Great schools in every single zip code, answerable first and foremost to the taxpayers of that zip code. Teaching as a profession supported and elevated, so that every school includes a cadre of top trained professionals who lead the charge. No more leadership (or teachership) by untrained (or faux trained) amateurs. Financial responsibility and transparency, with no tax dollars going to private corporate accounts without local approval. A return to a complete education that allows each and every child to focus on becoming fully human, fully him- or her-self, whatever that turns out to mean. All of which means no more false, narrow, cramped faux measures of school quality.

The Poison Premise

I can see how to get there with or without charters. So if you want to sit at a peace table with me, I guess the first thing you'll have to do is ditch the premise, "Well, of course, whatever we come up with will have to include charter schools." If you're more concerned about a guaranteed future for the charter industry than a guaranteed excellent education for every child, then peace between us is probably still over the horizon.

If it were necessary to include charters to get to my perfect educational future, I could live with that. But here's my question for charter fans-- if it were possible to give every child that excellent education, and the best way to do it was without charters, would you be okay with that?

Or is your premise, o charter fan, that whatever the future of education is going to be, it must have charters in it. Is it more important to educate every child in schools with local control and financial responsibility, or is it more important that the charter industry remain economically viable because that's where you've placed your bets? The answer will tell us what your real priorities and values are, and that answer will tell me how well we can hope to work together.

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